Confession time. I came to love crime writing – through which I release aggressive impulses in fictional characters who do the things that civilized people never should do – as a reaction to strangers who have tried to joke with me about grammar. (Okay, this is a false confession, but I don’t care: I’m going with it.)
You see, in my day job, I teach British Romantic literature, focusing on poetry by guys like William Wordsworth, and often when I explain this to people I meet at parties or in the neighborhood or on the beach, they step back, laugh nervously, and say, “You’re an English teacher? Uh-oh, I’d better watch my grammar!”
I’ve long thought that the right response would be to punch these people in the jugular and then calmly recite Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” while waiting for the police to arrive. Or to mimic and mock them: “Uh- oh, I’d better watch my grammar? I’d hate to diagram that fucking sentence!” Or to play silent and hard and disappear into a bottle of whiskey.
Fortunately, though, I’ve released my negative energies into fictional characters. So, instead, I respond calmly and politely. I tell them, “I’m more interested in how people talk than how they should talk. People at the university where I work say ‘whom’ a lot and they know the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’, so if you’re talking to them you probably should say ‘whom’ and know the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’ But if you join some of my other friends and me for a beer and start saying ‘whom’ and correcting them when they confuse ‘lie’ and ‘lay,’ you’ll probably get punched in the jugular. That’s because we’re talking with another grammar. Two groups. Two grammars. Both grammars have rules and conventions. The only difference is that if you break the rules of the academic grammar someone will put a C- at the top of your essay, and if you break the rules of the nonacademic grammar you’ll get punched in the throat.
“So, no,” I say to my new acquaintances, “I won’t correct your grammar. In fact, I celebrate your grammar, whatever it is.”
If I’ve convinced my new acquaintances, they smile and say, “Cool! Let’s you and me go get a beer and talk some more,” and then I get to make soft clicking noises and say, “That’s ‘you and I.’”